In serving both these families, I could not help but feel their loss and pain. I hurt for them very deeply, and in an effort to distract myself, I went on a family trip with my daughter to the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda. My plan was only to scuba diving among coral reefs with beautiful fluorescent sea life around me. Those who know me best know that when I am not working, I am at my happiest forty to fifty feet below the surface of the ocean. It is there that I can forget the injustices that torment me, focusing instead on finding lobsters, turtles, resplendent fishes and sometimes, on a really great dive, sharks!
A day or two into this vacation, my daughter asked if I would like to tour the island in a bright pink and black Hummer equipped with endless food and drink and hosted by local Black women – no men! The tour guide was a beautiful young lady, about 30 years old, who introduced the driver and then said “My name is Trouble.” I responded by telling her, “I’ve been looking for you all of my life.” This was going to be a great day.
The first stop on this tour was a place called “Devil’s Bridge.” This is a striking landmark in which limestone, beaten and battered by the sea, was shaped into a rugged bridge. We were told that this was also the place where tormented African slaves often committed suicide as this was the closest point on the island to their beloved Africa. Many threw themselves off the bridge, jumping into the crashing waves as they fought the pounding surf in their valiant efforts to swim home. But why? What drove them to that?
And then we are taken to a place called “Betty’s Hope,” a former slave plantation and now a cherished historic landmark. My mind was racing – I had travelled so far to forget the “Bettys” but now here I was coming face-to-face with this name again. I couldn’t help but notice the synchronicity to the pain each of them had experienced and were, in one case, still experiencing. Of all the Caribbean islands I could have chosen with great diving sites, why was I here?
At Betty’s Hope, I walked around all of the buildings and carefully read the placards that described the slave trade and the number of people it involved and the brutality they suffered. The miserable journey from Africa to the West Indies, part of the infamous trade route to produce and deliver rum, led to the enslavement of ten million people over the course of several centuries.
I read each and every word describing the history of Betty’s Hope and I cried for the parents, children, siblings, grandparents and cousins who were separated forever. What words could ever describe the emotional hardship each of these humans endured as their connections to their home, their history and their families were forever severed? It was so unimaginably cruel, so emotionally debilitating, so crushing to the spirit. The message I got here was that of family separation and the torture it creates in forcing each person to leave behind those whom they love.
I thought about my two Bettys and how their family separation, by edict of the probate court, was also torture. And at that moment, at Betty’s Hope on the island of Antigua, I felt the sadness of souls pass through me. I mean this absolutely literally. I felt something I had never felt before. The waves of sadness entering and leaving my body. The misery of injustice.
It was there and then that I realized I could not let the pain of family separation by the California Probate Court go on without a fight. It was time for me to be brave, braver than I had ever been. I knew I had to find the essence of courage, for the first time in my life.
Once I returned to my hotel, I decided to swim away from the shore, alone, where I could sort things out. Each day of that vacation I would swim away from the beach, a little further each time. First it was just beyond the buoys before I turned around and came back. The next day it was further out, and while I was still afraid, I knew that I had to trust myself and my ability to swim. I knew I had to be brave.
About a dozen years before my magical trip to Antigua and Barbuda, I had stopped working as a “court appointed attorney.” I did not want to be associated with a program or a process that was so ethically dubious. I did not want to be on a list with people who were doing things and saying things that were, to be blunt, despicable and unconstitutional. Instead, I had quietly continued to collect transcripts, orders, pleadings and other evidence of unseemly and unethical conduct by those presiding over and participating as “court appointed counsel” in contested conservatorship cases. And, it was there, at Betty’s Hope, on the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, I finally knew why.